Comparison of Story Structure Paradigms

Comparison of Story Structure Paradigms

I digested (to varying degrees) the various structural paradigms contained within the texts mentioned in the last post. It’s clear that there are as many different approaches to story structure as there are writers making the approach. They all are valid interpretations, but, like the approaches to other aspects of writing about which you read in writing texts, while the tone of the book is authoritative, the approach is subjective. That is, whenever you read a book about writing, whether it’s Stephen King’s On Writing or Ann Patchett’s The Getaway Car or John Dufresne’s The Lie That Tells A Truth, or even tomes that look more like college textbooks, such as Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction (9th Ed.), what you’re reading, more or less, is an approach that works for that particular author. Your mileage may vary.

That’s the spirit with which I approached these materials.

Though I studied five texts and found five different models, I figured that whatever was common among them must be the core, the essence, the backbone of the skeleton of any great story.

I sketched out the paradigms outlined in each book and laid them side-by-side in a spreadsheet, one column for each paradigm, doing my best to line up the elements so that they coincided with similar elements from other paradigms, such that you could scan across a row and see which elements were found in multiple paradigms.

A screenshot of the result is below:

This is undoubtedly an imperfect result, but it will serve to get things moving.

You can see that the models don’t line up perfectly. What is called Plot Point 2 in the Syd Field model coincides, I think, with the combination of All Is Lost, Dark Night of the Soul, and Break into Three in the Blake Snyder model, and with Changed Goal, Ally Attacks, and, especially, Girding the Loins in the Libbie Hawker model. 

However, Girding the Loins could also coincide with Gathering the Team from the Blake Snyder model. And, according to Hawker, Changed Goal and Ally Attacks could occur earlier in the story, if the author so desires.

So, things get a little slippery when you try to pin this down too closely. But, what does seem to exist everywhere, in one form or another, is the following:

  1. Character exists in an Ordinary (for the character) World
  2. Something happens to disrupt that world (for the character)
  3. Character decides (usually forced) to act
  4. Various try-fail cycles, often with a key reversal or revelation at the midpoint
  5. The Dark Moment, when all seems lost, where the character decides to put it all on the line and make one last, complete attempt
  6. Final showdown
  7. Outcome

Different models give different amounts of information between different points on this list. For example, Blake Snyder and the screenwriting course give a lot of detail between steps 1-3, while the others don’t. Libbie Hawker and Jack Bickham give a lot of detail in step 4, while the others don’t. Blake Snyder is about the only one to give a significant amount of detail for step 6. I’m hoping I can use this variation to bridge these gaps later on.

Okay, for now, this is a decent skeleton. I can often watch a movie or read a book and intuitively sense when step 2 occurs, or step 5, or step 3. But, how do I invent these steps? How do I know what should happen in each step?

Libbie Hawker gives some good tips on this. It starts with a character.

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